The unfolding state of development

UML, XML, Linux, antitrust and e-commerce -- these and other elements that came to define application development in 1999 were all in place in late 1998. But certainly there was a whole lot of shaking going on among these elements during the year, and the industry that emerges to face a new millennium is dramatically different than just a year ago. Much of what transpired in '99 was nearly phenomenal.

Today, the application server is poised to become the middleware engine of choice, taking an esteemed position next to the established database server and usurping the role of the transaction processor. The Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) spec has arisen to provide a basic definition of what an application server actually is. No doubt that definition will shift in the months to come.

The language at the heart of the J2EE spec is one of the big technology drivers of the day. Not yet born in 1990, and still accounting for only a fraction of all systems, the Java language in 2000 seems to be on a path to dominate enterprise development in years to come. It has unleashed a new batch of object and component technology that seems destined for broader implementation. Less mature is the eXtensible Markup Language (XML) -- but its pedigree as a child of the World Wide Web Consortium is such that it stands a fair chance of becoming a standard for data transfer and meta system descriptions in years to come.

No topic was more of a lightening rod this year than Linux. The upstart OS put a significant dent in NT server growth -- growth that was a hallmark of late-'90s enterprise environments. International Data Corp. (IDC), the Framingham, Mass.-based research firm, estimates Linux sales will grow at twice the rate of all other server OSes combined each year until 2003. "Linux-as-a-way-of-life" has now become a beacon for a mass of programmers who had a long list of complaints concerning Microsoft's Windows server systems.

All in all, moves to open standards of some kind continue to call the tune in modern IT. But, while some are reluctant to admit it, it is the de facto Windows standard that serves as the platform for most development work today.

And the Microsoft Visual Studio suite has come to dominate a low-end development segment that was once much more diversely populated. That could change. As with everything else that has to do with Microsoft, the future of Windows and Visual Studio was thrown into some dispute as the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant went down to the canvas
in the first round of its antitrust trial in Washington, D.C.

But the abiding fact of life for application development managers on the verge of 2000 is that the game is getting tougher and the bets are getting bigger. Especially, the risk and expense of fielding e-commerce systems is a growing concern. IDC has estimated that more than $203 billion will be spent on corporate Internet activity by 2002. IDC further projects the amount of commerce conducted over the World Wide Web to top $1 trillion by 2003.

How costly this can be for individual companies is increasingly documented. Auction house Sotheby's hired 100 people and spent $25 million on an e-commerce site that, according to the Wall Street Journal, is months behind schedule.

Competing house Christie's International pulled the plug on its online auction effort, and the $15 million price tag was no small factor in that decision. Catalog merchant Lands' End admits that a good portion of a $40 million to $50 million increase in fiscal 2001 capital spending is for investing in the company's information technology infrastructure, an infrastructure it hopes to switch over to an e-commerce model.

Of course it is not just e-commerce spending that keeps application development managers up at night. So-called off-the-shelf ERP software, which should form a stable back end for front-line Web apps, has been at issue in reported trip-ups (or outright failures) at Hershey (at a cost of about $112 million), Allied Waste Industries ($130 million) and Waste Management ($45 million).

But it is e-commerce failures that are the most visible. Witness summer 1999 outages that caused eBay's market value to drop $4 billion in a single day.

This is where modeling, object-oriented software, standard servers and cross-platform tools are supposed to help. Experts differ as to how soon or how much help is on the way. Knowing the future of development tools hinges on gauging who is closest to the mark.

The future of development tools

A decade ago, many vendors were vying for the lead in selling tools for building client/ server applications. Centura, then known as Gupta, and Powersoft took the early lead before Microsoft's Visual Basic took over and left everyone else in the dust. Few top tools vendors survived to the end of the decade. Powersoft was acquired by Sybase, Forté by Sun, while others were acquired by IBM and Microsoft. Most standalone tool makers, such as Inprise Corp. (formerly Borland International), Scotts Valley, Calif., are in a fight for survival.

Clearly the baldest fact of development today is that attention to development tools has diminished. In the early '90s, the stream of new graphical tools on the market set about to simplify programming. As two-tier client/server (largely PC to database) computing gave way to more complex three-tier models, the mid-tier logic layer gained importance. The so-called middleware that a tool leaves in place has become more important, for now, than the look and feel of the tool itself.

At the same time, the 4GLs associated with some of these tools lost favor to a fabulous new language known for its coffee cup logo -- Java.

Java won for business, not just technology reasons, said Linda Northrup, director, product line system program, Software Engineering Institute (SEI), Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh.

"Java was in Fortune. Java hit the business structure. And it is a pretty good language, too," said Northrup.

Though he concedes that Java "is not a complete silver bullet," Sun co-founder and Chief Scientist Bill Joy told a gathering at the recent Software Development Conference in Washington that "it could be the language that I have been looking for 10-plus years. I had a bad experience with C, so in 1980 I started looking for a better way. Then C++ came out in 1986, but people didn't get too excited about it."

Today, he said, "Java provides measurable improvement." Joy maintains that performance issues were resolved in Version 2 and that "our goal now is for Java to have 10 times the performance of C++ circa 1995 by 2005."

The apparent decline of 4GLs may just represent a change in nomenclature, said Jerry Cohen, president and founder of Information Builders Inc. (IBI), New York City. "I'll tell you something," Cohen said in a recent interview with an ADT reporter. "I would call HTML a 4GL language.

"It's non-compiled. It's scripted. You understand it immediately," he continued. "I think there are more programmers in 4GLs than ever. JavaScript is sort of a 4GL too. 4GLs have morphed. It's not a popular term, [it] has gone into disuse. But in reality, there's a lot going on."

Nevertheless, "the trend is away from [using standalone tools for development]," said John Swainson, general manager of the application integration middleware division at IBM which, together with Sun and Oracle, has led the Java charge. "The survivors have to form close relationships with application server vendors. Application servers need strong tool support," noted Swainson. For example, at the same time IBM incorporates its own tools into its application servers, it has also aligned closely with Rational Software Corp. to boost the WebSphere family with sophisticated life-cycle engineering support.

"Where yesterday's focus was on native implementations, the focus now is on tight integration with the runtime environment," said Swainson.

"The net effect is that the application development business has changed from a bunch of standalone tool vendors to more and more tools targeting application servers," he said. "Good tooling allows people to build, but they also need a solution to deploy systems quickly."

"We haven't seen a cutback yet in the use of development tools," maintained Herman Li, vice president for engineering in the Internet applications division at Sybase Inc., Emeryville, Calif. "That's not contradictory with the use of more packaged applications. Corporate shops are still buying application development tools for customization. I agree that eventually the use of tools will go down in corporate shops, but at the same time, ISVs will be using more."